Fiction — print. Scribner, 2015. 400 pgs. Purchased.
Set in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1969, Tóibín’s novel is focused on the efforts of the title character to reconstruct her life after the death of her husband, Maurice, from an unexplained illness. Life without savings and a smaller-than-expected pension, Nora must return to work as a typist after many years away in order to support herself, her two daughters away at school, and her two young boys still living at
Much of the novel’s drama — which is likely too loud of a word for this quiet story — is dedicated to the ripple effect Nora’s return to work for the Gibneys — the most prestigious family in County Wexford — has on the community. The Gibneys’ eldest son is fixated on efficiency and cost-savings, and he has aligned himself with a hated clerical worker to give the traveling salesmen the runaround on their reimbursement checks. The situation encourages Nora to join the unionizing workers, which the upsets the son and the Gibneys’ daughter whom Nora worked under in the office, and Mrs. Gibney is forced to step in to restore peace.
This “peace” allows Nora to dictate her hours and wages freeing her to be home in the afternoon with her children. Yet Nora is rather distant from her children still living at home, and she is largely blind to the impact of Maurice’s death on their four children. One of the boys, Donal, has developed a stutter, which Nora worries over but refuses to address, and become sullen and withdrawn focusing on a growing interest in photography. The other son, Conor, is moved from the A-class to the B-class whilst one of the daughters living away from home, Aine, has become drawn to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, which would latter be known as “The Troubles”.
The choices of and changes within her children become fodder for conversation between residents of rural Enniscorthy. Already resentful of their intrusion into her grief, Nora tries to find a new community and, therefore, a new identity for herself, through music by a records listening society and taking up vocal lessons. Music allows Nora to find her voice, to be able to address Conor’s classroom switch and better understand Donal’s new found passion.
If it sounds as though the story lacks a climax, that is because the novel largely lacks one. The novel is character-driven focusing on the efforts of one woman to move forward in a life cloaked in grief, to figure out who she is as an individual after being part of a couple for so long. It’s a struggle I think many could identify with, but grieving is also so individualistic that the lack of quickly moving plot could lead interests to wane.
Yet the gripping aspect, the reason why I kept returning to the novel despite the late hours of the night is the beauty of Tóibín’s writing. His subject matter is melancholic; his writing style is surprisingly comforting. Like slipping into a worn sweatshirt on a long, cold night. And so I finished this book and was immediately filled with the desire to read Tóibín’s entire back catalog, to pull that sweatshirt back on.